TR: A few years ago there were reports of internal strife and money problems in the Media Lab. Obviously, you weren’t involved, but how were those problems resolved? How will you prevent similar situations?
FM: I’m coming into this with my eyes wide open. I think it’s pretty clear that during the burst of the bubble and around 9/11, the Media Lab, like a lot of other organizations of its type, encountered funding challenges. Quite apart from anything the lab was doing, the appetite to take money and put it into speculative advanced thinking like this became unpopular. I think that created a real challenge for the Media Lab and there were a lot of debates about how it should be handled. I think they did a good job steering through that. The Media Lab is financially stable, the expenses have come into line with revenues, which had to be done. I see plenty to build on here and I think any of the problems of the past are prologue at this point.
A number of different processes in the Media Lab have been changed. Quite frankly, in the 80’s and 90’s, the atmosphere was a lot different. Money was raining down on research labs like the Media Lab. When that happens, sometimes too much money and too much publicity cause you to fail to create the discipline, the planning, and processes you need to operate. Maybe the Media Lab suffered from that – too much good stuff. I saw that when I went through the bubble with high-tech companies.
Technology Review: What technologies will the Media Lab will focus on in the next few years?
FM: I think in the next 20 years we’re going to see tremendous advancements in using technology to deal with lingering social problems – delivering health care, dealing with aging, education – things that go beyond the digital lifestyle we enjoy today. The lab is going to be looking at how we can use existing or new technologies to make a big difference and solve social problems.
I see innovation coming from people working together in a very open way in a networks-based world. We think we can play a role in making that happen. Some of the important projects here blur the boundaries between humans, computers, and networks. It’s going beyond the human-computer interface to truly making technology easier to use, more natural. We have a number of projects that enable computers to relate to people on more human terms. Commonsense computing gives computers virtual common sense – the ability to think about the everyday world as people do.
We also work on affective computing: giving computers emotional intelligence, an ability to recognize and understand human emotion and to communicate that emotion. We have a lot of work going on in the area of sociable robots and creating intelligent creatures that communicate with and learn from people as capable partners.
TR: How do you balance the more creative projects with the hard science projects like quantum computing?
FM: It’s all creative research. The projects here differ in their level of technology. We go all the way from the molecular level to understanding how people think – very soft science. The way you balance that is to continue to encourage that level of diversity in thinking. I’m convinced that the synthesis of really bold and creative ideas comes from the combination of ideas that are as vastly different as molecular-level nanomachines and the highest level cognitive processes of human beings. It’s that variety that’s going to lead to breakthroughs.
But what we need to do here at the Media Lab is to provide an overarching theme, a set of goals that links those together. That theme is looking at the future and the opportunities we have to make a difference in quality of life for people. I think they all fall under that category. Expanding people’s capabilities using technology, enabling them to think, learn, and be healthy in ways that weren’t possible before. This may involve subcellular technology or it might involve cognitive machines and other broader technologies.